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Dan Ritchie Unscripted

"What you have to do is have a plan,"says Chancellor Emeritus Dan Ritchie. Photo: Tatiana Botton

Inside the gates at Rancho Cielo, Dan Ritchie’s Santa Barbara retreat, the DU chancellor emeritus tends to a sizable succulent garden filled with exotic flora. Pride of place goes to a yucca rostrata acquired from a green-thumbed octogenarian who had nurtured the plant through decades of slow growth, but Ritchie is fond of all the Seussian eccentrics populating his plot.

“It’s fascinating to me,” he says, describing the demands and preferences of the collection as well as some of the lore and uses of various specimens. “I love plants. I talk to them and listen to them.”

It’s tempting to imagine the conversations between the man and his plants. “What do we need to be a great garden, a top-tier garden, a distinctive garden, the world’s finest?” In the picture that invariably springs to mind, the agave and the dragon trees gear up to transform Ritchie’s grand vision into reality.

For 16 years, similar conversations routinely took place at his other garden — the fertile soil of DU.

After all, Ritchie prides himself on striving for maximum results in everything he does, whether it is designing a garden, running a business or leading a university.

“His mind never stops,” says longtime friend and DU Trustee Joy Burns. “He’s always thinking of what could be, of how to make it more beautiful, how to make it better.”

“I do have a passion for doing things,” Ritchie acknowledges. And in the months since he left the chancellorship at DU, he has feverishly added to his to-do list. He has assumed board posts at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the Rose Community Foundation. He also devotes at least three days a week to DU matters, including chairing the University’s board of trustees and working to build the institution’s endowment. Although he makes time for other pursuits and passions — rafting the Green River, hiking in the Rockies, touring the gardens at Cambridge University — DU still tops his agenda.

The Ritchie years

In any history of DU, the Ritchie years merit a volume of their own, with whole chapters devoted to his vision, his philosophy and his initiatives. And in any narrative of the 16th chancellor’s eventful life, DU figures just as prominently, testing his resourcefulness, demanding his best efforts and staking its claim on his affections.

As the University’s chief executive officer, he was known for a leadership style that charted a direct, if sometimes arduous, course. The man himself was less well known. To many on campus he remains something of an enigma: a high-profile leader who kept a low personal profile.

“I have no secrets,” he says, but in an age of instant confidences, he retains a keen sense of privacy. When the conversation turns to himself, the 74-year-old Ritchie lapses into understatement. Ask him about his favorite architecture, and he expands into adjectives and anecdotes. Talk to him about the plight of humanity, and he’s downright voluble. “That’s one of the things that concerns me, for heaven’s sake — the future of the human race,” he says, sliding to the edge of his chair and ticking off a list of issues that merit immediate attention: the decline of civic engagement, a justice system gone awry, a corporate culture focused exclusively and excessively on profit.

Those who have known him for years say Ritchie’s essential traits and preoccupations have been a constant over the decades.

“I first met Dan Ritchie about 1960 or 1961,” Burns says. “He was, obviously, quite a young man at that time. He was president and CEO of Columbia Savings and Loan, and even back then he had a vision of how things ought to be done. He was an eager, hard-driving, hard-working young man who wanted to give back to the community.”

More than that, he was confident about his priorities and secure in his values. “I don’t think that I have ever known a man who is more at peace with who he is,” Burns says. That’s not to say that he ever lingers in rest mode, she adds hastily. “He never stops trying to make things better, and I don’t think he ever will.”

The hard-driving, questing side of Ritchie dominates his colorful biography, from his youth in China Grove, N.C., to his years at Harvard and his adventures in corporate America. After earning a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from Harvard, he briefly served in the Army and then as a securities analyst in New York. He came to Colorado to run Columbia Savings and Loan in the 1960s, when he met and befriended many of the state’s movers and shakers, people who, Burns points out, remain his close associates today.

His next stop was Hollywood, where he served as executive vice president of MCA, worked with the entertainment community’s biggest stars, lived in the house that actor Michael Wilding built for Elizabeth Taylor and earned an eye-popping salary that bought him every luxury. But Hollywood left him queasy, and in 1970, he walked away from the glamour and power.

“I really left Hollywood because I didn’t like the culture,” he says. “I guess the word that comes to mind is heartless. If you were a star, you could get away with anything. On the whole, I thought it was a grubby business. It was all about money and fame but not about heart. I left a job that paid me well — I thought I would never get a job that paid me that well again. But I just wanted to leave.

“For me,” he adds, “money is incidental. I have never cared much about it. I’ve done well, but it’s not much to get worked up about.”

His Hollywood gig was followed by an entrepreneurial dip into organic foods and an eight-year stint as CEO of Westinghouse Broadcasting. “We did wonderful things at Westinghouse,” he says, “like breaking the AIDS story nationally.” As Ritchie recalls it, an affiliate station in San Francisco came to him with solid reporting about a new plague that was terrifying the medical community. The story was so startling — and its ramifications so serious — that Ritchie knew it merited national attention.

Ritchie and his team decided to cancel the corporation’s lucrative prime-time lineup in favor of a report chronicling the mysterious virus. “It cost us money not to have prime-time programming,” he explains, noting that no one wanted their products promoted during such an alarming show. Nonetheless, he says, he and his team made the decision to put public need ahead of the bottom line — a consideration that he doubts would be respected by today’s broadcasting leadership. “It used to be that we were expected to make good money, but we were also expected to be responsive to public need,” he notes.

After he’d tested his mettle at the helm of the multinational corporation, he retired at age 55 to the Grand River Ranch near Kremmling, Colo., where he planned to spend years, if not the rest of his life, raising cattle and enjoying his patch of big sky.

He was doing just that when, in 1989, he was lured to Denver to take on problem-plagued DU. Like his departure from Hollywood, the move defied conventional wisdom. Leave the fresh air and good life for the stress of managing an institution in critical condition? “We were borrowing money to make payroll,” he recalls, noting that success was by no means probable. But after years of serving DU as a trustee, Ritchie didn’t want to see the University succumb to its troubles. With its rich history of contributing to the state’s economic and cultural life, DU struck him as well worth rejuvenating.

In 1994, unable to see how momentum could be sustained without a sizable cash infusion, Ritchie gave the University a large portion of his ranch, the sale of which netted DU $15 million. Not long thereafter, he presented the University with the rest of the spread, for a total gift of $50 million.

“Part of the reason for my gift was that we needed to do things,” he says, running through a list of deferred maintenance and new construction projects. “But part of the reason was to demonstrate to myself that I was not hooked on physical things.”

He also wanted to meet another test. Could he take the best part of the Kremmling ranch — its culture of what he calls “cowboy ethics” — emulate it himself and cultivate it at DU? In short, could he sacrifice something he loved for the greater good?

To explain cowboy ethics, Ritchie draws upon a story from a troubled year at the ranch, when cattle prices were down, expenses were up, and balancing the books was an onerous chore. Ritchie asked the ranch’s manager for help cutting costs. Unbeknownst to Ritchie, the manager discussed the ranch’s dilemma with the hands. The next time Ritchie encountered them, they approached him with a proposal. “What they said was, they knew times were tough. They had been there before, and they wanted me to know that they could get by with less money if they had to,” he recalls.

Today, when he surveys the campus and culture that make up DU, Ritchie believes he sees cowboy ethics at work. He spots them in the efforts of faculty and staff who put student and community welfare ahead of personal aspirations. He sees them behind the high rate of student engagement in campus and community life. And, in an example especially dear to Ritchie’s heart, he sees cowboy ethics on display in the Pioneer trophy case.

“The year we lost the national championship in skiing, I was up there with the skiers,” Ritchie says, recalling a series of 2003 pre-meet conversations that left him uneasy. “I told the coach that he was going to lose the championships. It was because that year we had failed to create the culture. It was more ‘I’ll go out there and I’ll do fine.’ But there wasn’t that passion for the team.”

When he hears the opposite — we’ll go out there, and we’ll do fine — he knows he’s looking at success. That refrain characterized the hockey team’s back-to-back championships in 2004 and 2005. “We created a culture there very deliberately. It’s the poster child of the concept that we have created. It’s satisfying to see what people can do with that.”

Part of the plan

Back at Rancho Cielo, the occupants of the succulent garden are learning to co-exist and complement one another. But for all its current beauty, the garden represents only a foreshadowing of Ritchie’s ultimate vision. That will come after years of growth and perhaps an addition or two.

“What you have to do is have a plan,” Ritchie says, contemplating the challenges of garden design. “What are you trying to accomplish? You work from there with a few major pieces.”

And one day, after years of patient cultivation and hard work, the results may exceed the vision — just as at DU.

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